6 ways to make your design look more professional

The question

I have met with my fair share of inexperienced graphic designers who are searching for their place in this enormous industry. Many have asked me what they can do to design at a more professional level.

The answers

While there are a lot of answers to this question that would most likely deal with the research or creative process, I have chosen to highlight a number of things beginning (or advanced) designers can do in order to make their design LOOK more professional. These tips are all about aesthetics and the final overall feel of your design piece. They include simplicity, contrast, texture, depth, gradation, and consistency.After reading the list, let us know what you would add by leaving a comment.

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1. Simplicity.

A fallacy of many new designers is to add too much to their design. Too many drop shadows, borders, colors, etc. I bring up this point first for a reason. As you read through the rest of this list, please remember that not each of these tips should be used in the same project or every time you work on a project. Use them sparingly and tastefully.

One designer who exemplifies simplicity in design is an acquaintance of mine, Brian Hoff. A glimps of his work is found above. Visit his portfolio or his blog and you will see the beauty in simplicity that he so successfully executes.

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2. Contrast.

Something that all new designers need to learn (and experienced designers need to remember) is that our eyes are wired to notice areas of high contrast first. Have you ever noticed how the appearance of our eyes is engineered? We all have a dark pupil and iris surrounded by the white of our eyes. Likewise, have you noticed that the first place to look at someone when you are talking to them happens to be their eyes. Not a coincidence. Contrast attracts attention.

By using contrast in your design, it will be not only more professional but more effective in communicating its message.

3. Texture.

Screen shot 2009-10-24 at 3.02.12 PMNow this is a dangerous one. In my opinion texture can be used quite frequently to add the extra boost your design needs. This, of course, should be done in extremely subtle ways. Heavy or extreme textures can detract from the main content of the piece but, if used wisely, it can also make your design look slightly more professional.

Why is texture so effective? Because it mimmicks real life. It is very unusual for us to look at an object in the world that has no texture to it. Chris Spooner, a very influential and skilled designer, is a great example of a designer who uses texture well to make things more interesting and professional. Check out Chris’s blog and portfolio to see what I mean.

4. Depth.

Let’s think some more about the way we see things in real life. Go ahead look down at your keyboard sitting on your desk. Or maybe out the window at a tree or a fence. Each item you look at overlaps something else. The keyboard overlaps the desk. The window glass overlaps the tree and the tree overlaps the fence.

If you want your design to be more professional and realistic, add depth. Subtle ways to add depth to your design include:

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  • light drop shadows
  • subtle blurring
  • overlapping shapes and objects
  • loss of saturation or definition
  • what else would you add?

5. Gradation.

Adding a very subtle and clean gradient to your design piece can be very effective. Now, I’m not talking about the seven-color neon gradients here, Im talking about the monochromatic (centered around one color) gradient that is barely noticeable. Notice, for example, the gradients used in the header of this page. The large black area is actually a gradient from dark grey to black, the blue area- a gadient from dark blue to darker blue.

Gradients should be used sparingly to add depth, interest, and an extra element of professionalism to your design.

6. Consistency.

This may very well be the most important principle of them all. Ensuring consistency in your design will give it a cohesive, “finished” look. Be sure to repeat elements, use a limited color palette, and limit fonts to a maximum of two. Then use those elements throughout the piece. This will make your design more impressive and a little more professional.


There is a lot of design clutter that you have to break through in this day of rapid technology and an ever-present internet. The graphic design industry is larger than ever and will continue to grow. If you want to make your design more professional, I suggest the above steps amongst others.

What other tips would you add to the list?

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  1. simplicity is a nice factor, as is a very subtle gradient. of course, there are differences between areas u’ll have to work for. a site for an artist might be very bombarding as a site for some it company might be more .. .. boring/businesslike… all depends on the audience.

    one majour thing though is consistency, whether it is in the use of drop shadows, fonts or colours…

  2. Thanks for these articles. I might add that another way to look more professional is to spellcheck your web page before posting.

  3. Great article! I’m a sucker for details! It’s awesome how these tips can make a huge difference at the final product. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Nice article Preston. Another element important to professional design and stepping a designer’s skill sets to another level is typography. The ability of how to properly use and manipulate type is not an easily learned element to design but can really be the difference between professional and amateur designers.

    1. Brian,
      I agree with that whole-heartedly. I recently spoke with someone in charge of hiring all new creatives at a design firm. They basically said they can make the decision to continue looking at a designer’s portfolio or not in about fifteen seconds–the motivating factor? Typography.

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